Manufacturers News
Danville NC firm works on plant-based composite materials
5 years, 7 months ago Posted in: Manufacturers News 1

By: TARA BOZICK SOURCE: GoDanRiver.com 

Jon Dorman of SleepyGoat Cheese (left) and Donna Favero look at a natural fiber reinforced plastic rod (used in a lab strength test at 3F, LLC’s headquarters) after The Network’s monthly meeting at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research on Tuesday. Founder Larry Dickinson of 3F, LLC in Raleigh, N.C., explained how natural fibers could be used to reinforce plastic, and potentially could replace fiberglass.

12/11/2011 — Imagine natural plant fibers constituting the body panels of a car, window frames, bathtubs or other structural materials.

Currently, fiberglass — plastic reinforced by glass fiber — is that standard lightweight, strong material. But what if natural fibers could replace fiberglass for bio-renewable materials that weigh even less?

That’s what Larry Dickinson, founder of 3F, LLC in Raleigh, N.C., hopes to do, after solving the challenges of using natural fibers to reinforce plastics for the U.S. composites industry. Composites are made of two or more distinct materials.

“We’re excited by the potential,” Dickinson told attendees of The Network at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research on Tuesday.

Automakers have been leading the way in using plant fiber composites in “semi-structural” materials like car dashboards, seat cushions or door panels. Using plant-based reinforcements instead of synthetic petroleum-based ones saves money and energy and is more environmentally friendly, Dickinson added.

Start-up product development firm 3F LLC, currently located in the technology business incubator at North Carolina State University, has developed a chemical coating treatment to apply to bast fibers (from the skin of a plant) to overcome the problem of moisture absorption and to better connect the fiber and plastic for a stronger reinforced plastic.

“It’s a bit of a challenge,” Dickinson said.

Right now, the firm is in the initial stages of optimizing its lab results. The next step is to continue development and optimize the product, then get viable prototypes into the hands of early adopting customers within 18 to 24 months.

The research and development firm is open to finding partners, and eventually wants to be a material supplier, Dickinson said.

The most promising plant for the 3F’s fiber need is kenaf, and the firm works with distributor Bast Fibers LLC to import its fiber.

Kenaf is easy to grow, but extracting and processing the bast fiber for use in materials is difficult, said Bast Fibers President Hugh McKee. Because that processing infrastructure doesn’t exist in America, Bast Fibers imports mostly from Bangladesh and India. Bast Fibers produces nonwoven mats of fiber in Mississippi for sale to manufacturers.

Dickinson and McKee hope one day kenaf could be a major U.S. industrial crop as the market for plant-based composites grows. Once product demand increases, demand for U.S. kenaf would grow, resulting in the emergence of domestic crops and processing infrastructure, Dickinson added.

Plant-based composites could be used in value-added products now that the government is pushing for more “green” technologies to grow jobs in America, Dickinson said. Many companies today serve a niche participating in green programs, like builders wanting green materials to collect more LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) points for homes or commercial structures.

McKee said the use of natural fibers is coming back full circle, as “in the old days” before polyester or synthetic fibers came along, natural fibers were the original reinforcement fibers. Yet, nowadays, firms like 3F incorporate chemistry technology for modern uses.

“Structural fibers doesn’t sound alluring, but we’re talking billions of dollars of potential market,” Dickinson said.

Such a market could mean a tobacco-growing region like Southside could grow kenaf, or the workers with textile industry skills could process kenaf for manufacturers, he added. Shuttered textile plants in the Southeast could possibly be retrofitted with special equipment to do so.

For more information, visit www.3FLLC.com or www.bastfibersllc.com. For more information about The Network meetings at the Institute, email Chris Horne at Chris.Horne@ialr.org or call (434) 766-6717.

 

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One Response

  1. I read the news about natural fiber that are part of my business, specially kenaf ( or hemp where possibile) because I was production manager and R&D director of KEFI Kenaf Eco Fiber Italy.

    I like to say that growing, harvesting, dew retting, scutching, are no so complicate, You can extract long fiber, short fiber, and shive separate from the pith … but the true problem for automotive industries is the dew-retting compared to the water retting and peeling by hand made in Bangla …
    only the flamish method ( see the flax process) can achieve a cleaness near to bangla product.. but on today only one line still in condition to clean kenaf steams as a flax giving you a long fiber good for plastic reinforcement ( I mean cut fiber from 2 to 6 mm)
    complete process and machinery with actrative cost can be availlable
    Ready to cooperate

    Valerio Zucchini

    PS: Taylor Hoobs can give you my reference

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